The wolf has answered my silent howls.
Excerpted from The House of Erzulie, which tells the eerily intertwined stories of an ill-fated young couple in the 1850s and the troubled historian who discovers their writings in the present day.
The private diary of Isidore Saint-Ange, New Orleans, 1852
Tomorrow, we take part in the Société de Magnétisme et Hypnotisme event at Mme. Laveau’s house in the French Quarter, where time once deserted me as I lay enraptured in the arms of my mistress. I hunger for my beloved’s presence as much as I dread her appearance there. (What a shameful lampoon to play the doting husband in front of her! It is an insult to all involved.)
I have realized it is much better to avoid P’tite Marie altogether, for there is no future for us and every moment I spend in her presence or entertaining thoughts of her only fortifies my compulsion. I feel that if I am away from her long enough, my fascination will sputter and die. That one day I’ll be able to look upon her with as little emotion as a stranger, but that day feels very distant indeed. I may well be old and gray before she slips from my mind entirely, for I am often reminded of her in the simplest things, a sunset or perfect blossom I would share, and my work on the orchidarium. None of which belong to her but are mine alone or mine to share with Emilie. Sometimes I feel that I function with only one arm, one eye, for my beloved possesses the others.
We spent two days in New Orleans to attend the séance at Mme. Laveau’s. I was pleased to see M. Dumas in attendance, along with four other men and women. P’tite Marie served as her mother’s assistant, and neither one mentioned our long-ago dinner — acting as if I were merely another curiosity seeker and adherent of the new faith. P’tite Marie seated herself between myself and Emilie, much to my wife’s delight and my consternation. Her bare hand fit into mine perfectly, smooth and warm, and I fought the urge to kiss it. The lamps dimmed, the incense burned, and Mme. Laveau summoned the spirits, calling for Papa Legba to open the gate. A tremor of anticipation ran through me as the ritual began. Dual currents of desire and repulsion traveled along my network of nerves.
How I longed to be alone with her and yet how mightily I resisted the attraction!
Two of the women there, sisters, sought contact with their deceased father. Mme. Laveau called him and the sisters asked their questions, murmuring and softly weeping as Mme. Laveau answered for him. Next, M. Dumas queried about a departed friend, a soldier killed in action some years ago, and received word from beyond that his fellow was well and at peace.
Mme. Laveau asked the room if any others had questions. From the corner of my eye, I saw Emilie squeeze P’tite Marie’s hand and ask for a message from the child she lost or about any other troubles plaguing Belle Rive. There was a lengthy silence. Emilie’s hopeful expression turned worried and grew dull as no response was forthcoming. No spirits answered her call. Suddenly, Mme. Laveau hissed, “Spirit! I sense your presence! I smell your perfume and feel the agonies of your soul in the air around us! Come forth and speak to us.”
The candles in the center of the table smoked violently and their flames danced as if in a strong breeze, but the windows were tightly closed, their curtains drawn. A shudder ran through each of us. I heard Emilie’s voice as if calling from another room. P’tite Marie gasped and her hand went limp in mine. I smelled the sharp odor of spilled blood, musty and thick. Terror gripped my heart. The candles extinguished themselves and the sisters shrieked and moaned.
The decaying fumes of antique parchment and burnt meat filled my nose. Something the texture and temperature of a monstrous eel that has lain at the bottom of a frozen lake swam into me, overtaking me with its viscous evil and stealing my air. I choked on it as if on a rank clot of jellied blood but could not expel it from me.
Emilie cried out in horror as the table leapt and juddered beneath our clasped hands, its four legs thumping violently against the floor. I watched in helpless horror as my adored fainted, barred from doing anything more than observing with mild concern as my heart raced with agonies of anxiety. It took all my strength to restrain myself from clasping her in my arms and kissing her back to life in front of my wife. I lingered as long as was polite, rent in two with my desire to invest body and soul in caring for P’tite Marie and my fervent need to flee before I gave myself away.
My hands will not cease their trembling. Look how shaky my writing! I feel myself to be in all ways bedeviled and my firmly held beliefs, those which I have always trusted to steady me through life’s storms and to serve as the Gibraltar to which I cling during moral and spiritual crises, have deserted me. All is thrown into chaos.
In the coach, Emilie asked repeatedly if I “had seen her” hovering above the table, a vicious mirage with tragedy-twisted features and blood-soaked hands. I had not, but Emilie insisted that some violent specter had stared directly at me and flung itself into my open mouth just before I began to gasp and choke.
“It looked like you inhaled a swarm of bees, Isidore. I was terribly frightened, but I knew that spirits have no wish to harm us and so I could bear it.” Only later, when settled in our hotel bed, did Emilie point out that she had asked her question in vain, for unlike the others, she received no reply.